Foucault ‘s Lectures on Subjectivity and Truth, XI.2 & XII

The concluding post

The second half of the lecture of 25th March, 1981

(The last post mistakenly refers to the 18th March instead of the 25th March. This has now been corrected)

I found this part of the lecture to be largely recapitulating material from earlier lecturers, so just a couple of points.

Firstly, an emphasis in Gaius Musonius Rufus (the first century Roman Stoic and member of the Senate) on the idea of the husband of the moral teacher of the wife, her guide to correct living. Foucault emphases the tension with the equality in marriage otherwise emphasised in Musionius Rufus, with regard to adultery and legal status, which in both cases are a departure from earlier antique assumptions. Moral inequality coexists with strict equality in other matters for Musonius Rufus in the ideal marriage, which he also regards as isolated from other social relations, and as the scene of a self-control, self-mastery strong enough to control wayward sexual desire.

Secondly an emphasis in Epictetus (the Greek Stoic educated in Rome by Rufus Musonius) on a self-mastery that goes beyond the Socratic capacity (which Foucault describes with reference to both Xenophon and Plato) to resist desire, calling for a self-mastery that resists the existence of desire, so that no test or Socratic courage is necessary to resist desire for a beautiful boy or woman.

Lecture of 1st April, 1981
This is the concluding lecture in the series. It includes, on a couple of occasions, a definition of one of the terms used by Foucault that has become most famous, ‘governmentality’. How far everyone who brings this terms into their work on social science, history and so on has given much thought to what the term means is unclear to me, and others have commentated on the apparently undefined overuse. Anyway, what Foucault says here, more in the way of a quick definition than a complete elaboration, is that governmentality refers to the government of the self and the government of others.
‘The government of self and others’ is of course the title of Foucault’s 1982-1983 lecture series at the Collège de France and refers to antique ‘governmentality’ there as it does here, so the brief definition does not necessarily cover all of Foucault’s usage. That is a topic I can’t go into right now, but it is at least worth pointing out that here is a definition of governmentality, and it does not seem very connected with the (over)generalised use.

Getting back to to the issues of sexuality, desire, and so on, in this lecture Foucault brings in governmentality, because he is concerned at this point with how the move towards the Stoic understanding of aphrodisias is connected with changes in the nature of antique government. That is the move from republican government in Rome and Greek city states with a en element of democracy and a strong element of competition between aristocrats, to the more imperial, monarchical and despotic forms of government.

Foucault seems mostly concerned with the move from Republic to empire, monarchy despotism in Rome during the first century BCE and for Foucault’s purposes that is conveniently close to a new wave of Graeco-Roman Stoicism, which left more complete texts than the earlier Greek wave, in the first and early second centuries CE, covering Musonius Rufus, Seneca and Epictetus, and which gets another new wind in the second century in the Meditations of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius even if that is not generally considered one of the most rigorous expressions of Stoic thought. That a Roman Emperor authored a Stoic or Neo-Stoic work, which is a philosophical literary classic is very helpful to Foucault’s argument.
Foucault also refers, much more briefly, to the termination of the full independence of the Greek city-states, as the result of the fourth century BCE expansion of Macedonian power under Philip II confirmed by Alexander the Great. The correlation is very neat in that the first stoic philosopher, Zeno of Citium, was born towards the end of the fourth century BCE, but there are less texts from the first wave of Stoicism, and it is later developments that preoccupy Foucault.

Foucault argues that the republican politics, dominated by competing aristocrats, was suited to the attitude that an active mature man incorporates intimate relations with women and boys, that is with social inferiors, into into his way of living. That activity is very suited to the emphasis on the active political participant who recognises no superior, as all citizens are equal, at least in principle, and is engaged in a constant competition to exercise some power.

The take over by despotic rulers deprives the active competing aristocrats of any political role other than that of administering the state in the ruler’s service. In this situation, demonstrating capacity to govern self and others through relations with boys and women becomes irrelevant, and the self-restraint implicit in the idealisation of marriage becomes more appropriate. In the republican time, it is shameful for a man to have been the ‘passive’ partner in a same sex relationship and is enough to exclude citizens in later life (‘passive’ partners are presumed to be boys/young men seeking favours from older men, and therefore close to prostitutes, if not exactly the same) from office and even from any political activity.

The shame of sexual ‘passivity’ continues in the period of despotism in the way Roman historians, particularly Tacitus and Suetonius, represent ‘bad’ emperors who are shown to lack sexual restraint and ‘passivity’ in literal sexual terms (Nero) or in becoming the instrument of their wife (Claudius). They were thought of as connected with the east, seen as irrational (this particularly applies to Elagabalus/Heliogabalus though he came after Tacitus and Suetonius, and has precedent in the scandal caused by Mark Anthony’s liaison with Cleopatra of Egypt). Marcus Aurelius (again after Tacitus and Suetonius) was seen as good and and as sexually restrained, as fitting with Neo-Stoic writing.

Christianity takes up these Stoic attitudes to sex, the idealisation of restraint and equality within marriage, which are in some degree the product of politics acceding to Foucault, and creates an emphasis on desire or concupiscence, as a dominant feature of human life. This goes back to the earlier integration of sexual themes in the republican aristocracy round activity and government, but gives it a less political context, and a context in which the ideas and practices of subjectivity are forming.

The above refers to Subjectivité et Vérité. Cours au Collège de France, 1980-1981. Eds. François Ewald, Allesandro Fontana and Frédéric Gros. Paris: Seuil/Gallimard, 2014


One thought on “Foucault ‘s Lectures on Subjectivity and Truth, XI.2 & XII

  1. Pingback: Barry Stocker’s reading of Foucault’s Subjectivity and Truth lectures concludes | Progressive Geographies

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